Nurturing the Artist Within

Lecture from Texas Christian University

By Peter Clothier | Posted 6/1/11 | Updated 9/8/20
Based on Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit

I was invited to give this lecture by this title for a group of art teachers engaged in a summer workshop at Texas Christian University a little while ago, and I thought the ideas might be worth noting down in written form.

Do all of us have an "artist within," as I've heard some claim? At first blush, this notion can sound suspiciously New Age-y; but in fact the truth of it must be evident to anyone who has ever raised or loved a child. Creativity comes naturally to children. Watch them playing in the sandbox. Give them a cardboard box, a few blocks, a stuffed toy or a doll and watch the imagination run wild. Give them a handful of crayons, a pencil, a few pots of paint, a lump of clay, and watch the fingers go to work. Give them a costume to put on…

See what I mean? I can't imagine that there's a child anywhere in the universe who, given the opportunity to create, will not make something of it. We know them to be natural, spontaneous, richly imaginative creators of images and stories, word games and dramas. It's only as we grow older and become self-conscious and self-critical that most of us lose touch with that artist.

I say "lose touch," because I happen to believe that we never actually lose the artist. What happens? We begin to worry about what others think of us; we even worry about what we think of ourselves. As the critic steps in, the artist tends to hide. For the vast majority of human beings, he or she gets hidden away for the rest of their lives; but for those of us who like to think of ourselves as "creative," there are a variety of continuing choices. We can be coy about it, a bit embarrassed by our inner dream, and allow it to manifest only privately, with no one else around; we can embrace it tentatively, without support or conviction enough to treat our inner artist as more than a charming, if occasional visitor; or we can devote our lives to it, to the exclusion of every other option or temptation.

This is, of course, a range. There are many stages in between.

So how do we go about "nurturing" this artist, should we choose to do so, and why is it important?

Let's take the second part of the question first. It's important to do so, as I see it, because of what can happen to the un-nurtured artist within, who can easily grow tiresome and bitter and who can eat away at us from the inside, sometimes without our even knowing it. We may experience it as a vague dis-ease, a sense of not quite doing what we have been given our lives to do. We may experience it as a physical dis-order — a nagging belly-ache, say, or some other physical signal that all is not well in our lives. We may take it out on our wives or husbands, on our children, in the form of an emotional distance, a detachment, a not-quite-being present. There are many ways in which we manifest our sense of un-fufillment, the burden of our disappointed dreams. So it has to do with our happiness — a not unworthy goal.

The business of nurturing the artist is not very much different from that of nurturing a child — even, dare I say it, an ordinary garden plant? The love that's needed goes without saying. But the first practical duty of the nurturer is to provide a safe environment; the next, to feed and shelter from adverse elements; and then to encourage strong growth with the just exactly right blend of discipline and permission. This is our job, if we want to stay alive…

What does this look like, then, as we nurture the artist within? The safe environment is that place where we can do the artist's work — a consciously created, physical space dedicated to just this purpose. It might be a study or a studio, no matter how makeshift, where we can "go to work," a place apart, where the mind can find the solitude and quiet that it needs, a place where it feels the comfort and familiarity that assure its safety. We may not all have the luxury of "a room of our own," but it's important to define a space where creativity can happen. For some, as I'm sure you will have noticed, it can even be a space out in public — a corner table at your local Starbucks, say.

Next, the food. We have to feed our babies, and the artist within is no exception. For each of us, it's a different kind of food. Mine happens to be books. And art of all kinds, particularly the work of contemporary artists. I spend time in museums and galleries, which provide the kind of mind-food that I need. I watch movies. I even watch — gulp — television. I also take walks in the country or along the beach. I play with the dog. I talk to friends. All this is the kind of mind-food that often goes ignored, or is not recognized as such. It's important to keep watching and listening, consciously, with the conscious awareness that what I'm experiencing right now, wherever I am, is grist for the mill.

I think we all know how much our children respond to praise and encouragement. The seeds to their passion are planted and their commitment flourishes with acknowledgment; by contrast, it can rapidly wither when ignored or scorned. For better or worse, we happen to be grown-ups at this point in our lives, and the vast majority of us can't count on that acknowledgment coming from the masses of people we'd love to see our art or read our books. Kudos to those who do; for the rest of us, it becomes important — vital, really — to learn how to give ourselves the feedback and encouragement we need. This is no easy feat, but it can be a useful part of the "practice" we must establish if we are to lead a healthy and satisfying creative life.

Ah, yes. Practice. There's that familiar old joke we've all heard, probably many times before, about the stranger in New York City who asks a jaded local how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer? "Practice, practice, practice." There's that kind of practice, then — the hours we spend doing it and doing it over again until we get it… I don't want to say "right," because heaven forbid that would ever happen. But, okay, "right." At least as good as we can get it. You know what I mean.

This is a discipline — the last aspect of nurturing on my current list, if by no means the only remaining one. We know, don't we, that children need boundaries if they're to grow up to be happy and responsible adults. It's no longer a case, clearly, of "spare the rod and spoil the child." In some ways, at least, we are more enlightened than our nineteenth century forebears. But understanding the rules is the first step toward freedom for the creative mind. The mind that has not learned discipline is like an untrained puppy dog, which likes to chew on everything in sight and, if you're not careful is liable to piss on your best carpet.

So this is the ultimate requirement, if we are to "nurture the artist within." We must learn to train the mind to focus its powers on those things we want it to do, rather than give it free rein to wander all over the place, as it's wont to do without our oversight. We need to know how to supervise its activities and make it work to our advantage rather than our detriment.

The best way I personally have found to achieve this goal is through meditation. Others learn to train the mind in different ways — through martial arts, perhaps, or any other truly disciplined activity. Meditation is a practice like the creative practice. It requires me to show up, sit down, and get focused. Most of all, it requires me to persist. Because the mind wanders constantly, always off on some tangent of its own invention. Each time I sit, I practice the art of bringing it back every single time it wanders, to what I want it to be doing. And slowly, slowly, I learn how to persist.

So that's what it takes, as I see it, to "nurture the artist within." And nurturing is surely what it takes to honor our creative lives and find the fulfillment that we deeply need.

Next: PERSIST: The Big Lie

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Peter ClothierPeter Clothier writes chiefly about art and artists in Southern California. He has published widely in national magazines, and is the author of David Hockney in the Abbeville Modern Masters series. ...

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